The Great Talker, collected


I wanted to let Studs Terkel be the subject of this first post, in part because his spirit of interviewing and inquiry ought to be enjoyed by people who don't know about him, and because there is a new website where it's easier than ever to do it.. The Studs Terkel Radio Archive over the past couple years has been building up it's collection of radio interviews conducted by Terkel, whose career at WFMT has spanned nearly five decades. Terkel interviewed thousands of people. The archive includes famous personalities like Nina Simone, Hunter Thompson, Bob Dylan, and Tennessee Williams. But more importantly, his interviews included countless numbers of 'common people' talking about their lives. He published books on working in America, race, World War II, The Great Depression, which are filled with names and stories of people that would otherwise be totally forgotten. The result of his efforts was an oral history project that probably doesn't have parallel in this country, at least not by the efforts of a single person. Anyone who enjoys talk radio will find scores of interviews in this archive that will thrill and interest them. They are compiling over 9,000 hours.

Studs Terkel grew up among people. When he was a child his family ran a rooming house in Chicago. This was in between world wars. His formative years were spent listening to all kinds of people there and in nearby Bughouse Square. The kinds of childhood memories of lively discussion and argument in the pre-war era is described by Terkel in a late interview given at Berkeley:

"The thing we miss today is argument. We miss debate. We miss the whole idea of people going back and forth. I loved hearing those arguments. Many [of those in the hotel] were autodidacts, were self-taught. They carried little blue books. They were called "E. Holderman Julius Blue Books." They cost a nickel and a dime; printed in Gerard, Kansas. And it would be the works of Shakespeare; it would be the works of Clarence Darrow defending people. It would be Plato, Aristotle. It would be about agnostics."

The kind of interest by working people in high culture and politics during the 20s and 30s is a theme I've heard other public figures like Noam Chomsky recall as a backdrop to their childhoods. There isn't any reason why these kinds of activities are naturally the domain of wealthy people. And reading and listening to interviews by Terkel, one begins to see a common theme of dignity and intelligence running through them, whether the subject has a well-known name or not. His major contribution was to remind us of how interesting everyone around us potentially is.

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